Action Village India’s Director, Kavita Pandey’s Visit to Partners in India

To immerse into the true essence of India, travel to its villages: A Journey Through the Soul of India

Some facts and figures and chronic inequality in India

India’s phenomenal progress in last 2 decades or more has helped millions move out of poverty. In the past few decades specifically, the fight against poverty in India has come a long way. Since 2005, an estimated 415 million people have risen out of poverty in India – an impressive feat, considering that the country has a total population of 1.4 billion today. It has a diverse economy, which includes industries such as agriculture and handicrafts. Thanks to a well-educated population of English speakers, India has gained a global foothold in massive modern sectors such as information technology services and software workers. This increase in economic prosperity has given many of India’s poorest opportunities to rise out of poverty.

Despite some progress over the past 20 years, several hurdles remain in the fight against poverty in India. Over 16.4% percent of the population still living in extreme poverty ($1.25 per person per day) placing India at the bottom of the Global Hunger Index (2022), in 107th rank of 121 Countries.

In addition to this, the urban-rural divide of poverty remains very pronounced; as many as 21.2% of India’s rural-living citizens live in poverty, which contrasts with the much smaller 5.5% of impoverished urban dwellers. To put it into perspective, 205 million of India’s 229 million impoverished citizens live in rural areas as per the Mint report.

Through my lens

Thankfully, even with the challenges that COVID-19 posed, and the challenges of chronic economic inequality still posed today, the fight against poverty in India continues its momentum.

Paradoxically, on the one hand India is in its upward momentum if we look at its economic growth; in 2022, it became the fifth-largest economy in the world. According to other reports, it could also become the third-largest economy in the world by 2029, and on the other hand, it is placed at the bottom in the Global Hunger Index in 2022.

As the country’s economy continues to grow, ideally more opportunities should arise for its poorest residents to climb the economic ladder and rise out of poverty. However, before making any observations and comments, I am keen and looking forward to the next socio-economic survey (census) which is scheduled to be conducted in 2024/25 to get the current reflections from the field.

As it stands, the current state of poverty in India shows several more hurdles remain in ending its impoverishment, but the horizon looks hopeful due to a continued global awareness of the need to end poverty and active Civil Society Organisations in contributing towards the development issues and challenges at the grassroots level in India.

My journey to the rural India and partners’ contributions towards a better India

My visit to the rural landscape of India is not only vital for us (Action Village India) but equally important to the partners.  These trips give us the opportunity to strengthen our solidarity with partners and enhance the partnerships and bonding we share.

During my visit, partners shared how these visits give them the opportunity to investigate the project work and activities from the supportive ‘critical’ approach, an opportunity to discuss and share problems they face while executing the project work and how we can resolve them in a more collaborative manner. I received a very positive and exciting response from the community members on my arrival, sharing how these trips provide them the encouragement and support and a mammoth amount of confidence on our long-lasting commitment.

I reached New Delhi with my 3-year-old son and dropped him to my parent’s place first, as travelling with this little man to various states of India would have been challenging from a health and wellbeing perspective (the pandemic by its nature takes time to vanish). It was a pleasure to see our grandparents take care of these tiny humans with utmost responsibility and love.

After making sure of my childcare responsibilities, I started my journey towards various partner’s location in India. This was my first visit to the projects field since I joined Action Village India in August 2023 and second visit to India to meet the partners in the last eight months.

Project and Partners Visited:
EquiDiversity Foundation (EDF), West Bengal
Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra, Jharkhand
Lakshmi Ashram, Uttarakhand
CRUSADE, Tamil Nadu
Travel to EquiDiversity Foundation, West Bengal
After reaching New Delhi, the first partner and project I visited was EquiDiversity Foundation in West-Bengal, 1546.4km from New Delhi, highlighted in this political map of India, and I was warmly welcomed by Anindita Majumdar, director and founder of EquiDiversity Foundation, and Dilip Banerjee who has been a long term supporter of Action Village India, who is also a member of the Board of Trustees of EquiDiversity Foundation.

Action Village India is supporting the programme ‘Women’s Voice and Rights: Strengthening Women’s Leadership and Political Participation in rural local self-governance (Panchayati Raj Institution)’ for gender inclusiveness in 4 GPs Birbhum, West Bengal, India. This intervention is planned gender inclusiveness in 4 GPs Birbhum, West Bengal, India. This intervention is planned for three years and we are currently in the third year of the project.

Anindita and I had decided on my field visits in advance and planned to travel to two districts in West Bengal: Birbhum and Sundarbans. Birbhum is the district where we have been supporting the project ‘Women in the Local Governance’ since the beginning, and Sundarbans is the field where EquiDiversity Foundation is proposing to replicate the Birbhum model.

We started from Kolkata to Birbhum right after my arrival at Kolkata. It was such a delightful journey with such wonderful companions and the opportunity to talk and discuss a lot about our personal and professional life. We connected very well, and I got brilliant insights from Dilip on the social, economic and environmental issues of Sunderbans.

In Birbhum, I visited the EquiDiversity Foundation office, two Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and two more villages where women have started a couple of economic activities with the support of EquiDiversity Foundation. In these village panchayats, the meetings were preplanned and arranged by the field team of EquiDiversity Foundation. I spent many hours with the Women Elected Representatives (WER) of Panchayati Raj Institutions , Nari Jagran Committee (NJCs) members, male elected leaders, opinion leaders and village level Child Protection Committee (CPCs) members, and had the opportunity to interact with most of them. We planned a series of supportive questions and answers sessions and focussed on various topics such as: participation in the governance process, decision making at home and at village level, identity and learnings, male’s participation at household chores, and gender roles and examples of best practices etc.

To show the project’s outreach at a glance:

This was followed by my meeting with women members who EquiDiversity Foundation supported during the Covid pandemic in generating livelihood support through Nutrition Gardens, Poetry Farming and other income linked opportunities with a little financial support from Action Village India. It was so heart warming to see how a little financial support and local guidance can help in improving the economic level of these poor households in rural India.

I also got the chance and time to visit EquiDiversity Foundation Birbhum office where I was met by the full team, and the meeting was full of learning and insightful exchanges. The team members had several queries and curiosities to understand the working of Action Village India, the role of director, how we raise funds in the UK and the charity management. The young team was full of energy, positivity and willingness to learn and contribute.

I also visited one Panchayat in Sundarbans. The meetings were organised by EquiDiversity Foundation in the Panchayat buildings (historically, West Bengal has very nicely built and spacious panchayat buildings) where I could again interact with the Nari Jagran Committee members, elected women and men leaders of the panchayats, and opinion leaders of the community.

This project is called “Women in Local Governance” and has been supported by Action Village India since 2021.

I could observe a noticeable difference between Birbhum and Sundarbans panchayat elected women representatives in terms of:

  • Confidence level
  • Awareness of social rights
  • Awareness of political rights
  • Awareness of community-level planning methods
  • Knowledge of various government departments and how to approach them
  • Capability to present and raise local issues and challenges with a strong voice

Due to the rights-based civil society activism and interventions in Birbhum for long, the elected women leaders of Birbhum are much more on a higher level if we look at the above parameters compared to in Sundarbans where EquiDiversity Foundation has initiated some interventions without any external financial support.

Women are long-ignored from the organised political arena across the world and such programs or initiatives have proved to be remarkable in including women in local-level politics and in empowering women politically to be able to make governance decisions rather than acting as proxy leaders.

The main objective of this program is to strengthen women’s participation in local governance with a higher rate of effective participation with involvement in the decision-making process and running the local governance. If we look at the two indicators: political empowerment and political awareness, I feel the project implemented by EquiDiversity Foundation is doing a remarkable work in bringing change.

Towards the end of my visit, we had a very productive meeting and a feedback session with positive idea and plans based on my observations, and we discussed the next phase of the project collaboratively. Based on the very fruitful discussion, Anindita will be sharing a new proposal that will start in September 2024 and end in March 2025. We have taken this decision collectively to bring the EquiDiversity Foundation project cycle in line with the financial year.

We have planned and taken decisions on the next set of interventions collectively which includes a small pilot on women’s economic empowerment, replication of the political empowerment model in Sundarbans and Social impact assessment of the 3-year project.

My Next destination: Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra, Jharkhand

My next destination was Jharkhand, and I was very excited to meet the entire team of Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra, visit the girl-students and the communities. Action Village India has been supporting Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra (NBJK), working to educate, organise and empower girls and women from disadvantaged sections, since 2005, to attend school, who would otherwise have dropped out or not attended.

This area of intervention is very close to my heart as I believe that every child has a right to learn and get a good quality education, regardless of gender, where they live or their circumstances. In India, the gender gap in literacy and education is a big and important dimension of gender inequality. Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in Jharkhand, India have limited access to quality education, and it is contingent on various social, cultural, and economic barriers that stand between girls and education, and in turn their all-inclusive empowerment.

The aim of the project since its conceptualisation has been to deconstruct the existing norms that stand as barriers towards gender equality and all-inclusive empowerment.

Towards the end of the last financial year (2023-24), we co-produced a pilot project to run parallel to the ‘Girls Education’ project to make the education project more comprehensive and holistic.

This project looked to raise awareness about the importance of educating girls by advocating with parents and communities. There were 19 Learning Centres which supported the education of girls, whilst providing career counselling sessions and life skills training to girls in their communities. Also 435 girls were supported last year, with their tuition fees completely covered, and uniforms and books were bought so that they could attend school. Giving girls the chance to go to school has helped them think critically, communicate effectively and build healthy relationships.

I visited Pabra, Khutra, Piri (Simaria) Gurhat, Gudwa, and Deokuli schools in Jharkhand, and met those working in Learning Centres (including students, school students, teachers, community leaders, smaller partner organisations under the ‘Girls Education’ project and women, men and children under the ‘Community Action programme ‘and the entire Project team.

Under the redesigned project, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra very successfully recruited 7 female staff in the project team to execute the project well. When I started my travel from London, I was a little apprehensive and keen at the same time to understand how this redesigned plan is working on ground.

On my arrival at the Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra office, Rajeev, the project manager had organised my meeting with all the female staff, where we discussed their experiences and learning from the capacity building training (Training of Trainers). After that we decided to visit the Learning Centres and conduct the training with the girls; I was an observer initially. Later, I got the opportunity to meet more than 400 girls who are being provided quality education in these Learning Centres to complete their academic syllabus and learn and progress to secondary and higher education. During my field trip, I visited 9 of the 19 Learning Centres in Jharkhand and interacted with the girls to understand the needs from their perspective.

I am pleased to share that I had a very successful visit to the Girls’ Education project field; and the pilot project mentioned above is being very well implemented.

I could see a huge impact that this support towards education is creating in the lives of the girls who would have otherwise not pursued education due to various socio-economic factors.

I visited several schools and coaching centres and interacted with the girls for hours. I was happy to see that the girls have very regular attendance in schools and coaching centres and are excelling in their academic learnings with high grades. Many of them surprised me with their proficiency in various subjects such as Maths, Science and English. A few girls had written poems and write-ups in English and were very keen to read them out for me. They are actively participating in the additional training including gender awareness, life skills and career counselling.

I could sense how this support is helping them in developing various ways to reason and think, which will eventually help them develop a perspective and a vision in life; this will significantly impact their worldview. Talking to learners, it was clear how accessing education opened new pathways of reasoning and thinking about the world. For me, it was thrilling to observe this level of motivation among girls to go into higher education, sports, teaching, police services, banking, social work, administrative services, and so on.

This was such a heart warming experience for me, especially because having worked in India for more than 15 years with grassroots organisations, and having travelled across the under-served geographies of India, I am aware of the hardships that the girls in general, and girls from the under-served communities in particular, go through to break the socio-economic barriers and reach to this level. For many, this might seem trivial, but it is indeed a great achievement.

As they say, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’. By advancing girls’ education through learning centres, and at the same time breaking the barriers (early marriage, early childbearing, desire for boys, big family size, customs-poverty, gendered domestic roles, treating girls as burden due to social evils such as dowry, etc) that limit their access to education, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra’s work is leading towards transforming the lives of girls as well as the community.

This intervention is helping in reducing gender inequality in many ways, including girls’ primary and secondary education, gender norms, and gender-based violence. As a matter of fact, by advancing education for girls, they are more likely to realise their potential, exercise their human rights, and contribute to society in the long run.

One of the remarkable interventions made by our partner highlights that timely societal intervention and counselling can prevent the age-old dogmatic practice of ‘child marriage’. I met and interacted with three of these girls who are now continuing their mainstream education. One of them is a football coach for girls’ team in her district currently. Another young woman who was prevented from child marriage is now a science teacher in one of the coaching centres supported under this project.

Meeting them was insightful and inspirational and at the same time full of love and warmth. This was possible only because of the active, alert and highly aware team of Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra. Under the additional training on gender awareness and advocacy, the girls are being empowered with the knowledge and awareness of their rights and it was thrilling to hear that directly from the girls who have witnessed such practices around them. They are willing to take a stand against such social evils by simply knowing their rights, and the institutions they can approach to get help. I have always believed in identifying simple solutions to complex issues and this is one of the best examples. We will share these success stories in more details with the annual report due out later this year.

When it comes to human behaviour and social norms, these changes take time and continuous effort.  Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra, the partner for this project, has been working to mainstream the girls’ education in Jharkhand and Bihar since 2005, and it is because of the generous support of the Geoff Herrington Foundation and our supporters, that the girls from marginalised households have dared to dream big. After my visit I realised that with the right intention to empower these girls holistically and make them capable of leading their lives as they choose to, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra has the right plan of action in hand.

This upcoming year we’re excited to bring together our work helping girls access education with our work advocating for their right to education in their communities.

Driving all the way from Delhi to Uttarakhand: Lakshmi Ashram

Lakhsmi Ashram is the partner and place closest to my heart. After Jharkhand, I came back to Delhi to spend a couple of days with my 3-year-old, before leaving for Kausani, Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand is my ancestral place, and I remember visiting my grandparents here during the summer vacations. I have some very fond childhood memories of Almora, Uttarakhand.

Lakshmi Ashram, situated in Kausani in the Almora district of Uttarakhand, was established in 1946 by the London-born disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, Sarala Behn, to provide education for rural girls along the holistic ideals of basic education as developed by Gandhi ji. At present there are some fifty students from class I to XII in the ashram. The ashram also runs kindergartens and environmental projects in the surrounding hills. Lakshmi Ashram hosts volunteers who work in India and want to learn about the local area and the Gandhian traditions.

Travelling to Kausani in Uttarakhand, and reaching Lakshmi Ashram is a little challenging, and takes time, due to the hilly landscape and mode of commutation. As I am well-versed with the hilly terrain of the highlands, I decided to skip a long train and bus journey, and rather picked up my car to drive all the way from Delhi to Almora. I took a night pause in Almora where I stayed at my relatives’ place and started the drive through the breathtaking beautiful Himalayas in the early morning to reach Kausani by 9am.

I was met by the dearest Neema, coordinator of Lakshmi Ashram, who had walked down the hill to receive me. She was very kind to offer me the most delicious breakfast after which we started on the  uphill walk towards Laksmi Ashram. It was such a delight to meet and interact with Neema.

On reaching the Ashram, Neema showed me around, and took me to every corner of the ashram explaining the peculiarity of each place.

We had a wonderful meeting for a couple of hours, and I was amazed to see her commitment towards Gandhian principles and values, and her dedication towards the ‘Holistic Girls Education Model’. She has dedicated her entire life to the ashram’s work and truly believes in social service (samaj seva) through non-violent approaches.

I then met Asha, who was previously the student of Lakhsmi Ashram, but now one of the Lakshmi Ashram associates and teachers. She walked me around and introduced me to the current batch of girl-students. This was followed by a morning prayer meeting, where the girls had prepared various songs, and we enjoyed singing together.

I had planned a few exercises with the girls so they could come forward and share their way of life, ambitions, visions and needs, including any support that Action Village India could provide in fulfilling their education and career goals. I started talking about my educational background, professional, challenges I faced, hurdles on my path, drawbacks, failures, and successes. This exercise was very fruitful, as with some initial inhibition, the girls started to come forward, and each one of them shared their own journey to Lakshmi Ashram and beyond.

These girls are bright, brave, and courageous. Many of them surprised me with their commitment to learn and follow a simple but respectful life with economic independence. Some said they want to continue to work with the ashram like Neema after completing their education and dedicate their lives for the noble cause. We exchanged ideas and ways forward.

This was followed by my meeting with David Hopkins, who takes care of the administration and finances of the ashram, and Hansi, who is a teacher as well as works in the management of the ashram. It was such a delight to meet both.

David narrated the long history of his association with the ashram and how it operates. To my surprise, he could not only speak good Hindi, but he could also write in Hindi; when I reached his office, he was getting the examination paper ready for girls in Hindi.

Lakshmi Ashram is one of our solidarity partners, and this visit was a milestone in reviving and strengthening the relationship. It was such a great experience and learning opportunity for me, and invaluable to Action Village India.

Action Village India has continued to provide solidarity support to Lakshmi Ashram in the past year through involvement with different partner events and meetings and would be happy to provide support in the future, if needed.

Towards the end of my trip: CRUSADE, Tamil Nadu

During the year, Action Village India continued its support for the second phase of the Disability Rights project ‘Rehabilitation and Promotion of Livelihood for People Living with Disabilities’. The project aims to improve the status of people living with a disability and enable them to live a life of dignity and self-reliance.

Tamil Nadu was the last and final project location of this trip. I had only met Dr Haripriya, Rekha and Ruthmani from the team in the partner’s forum in October 2023; meeting Jothi and rest of the CRUSADE team was such a wonderful experience.

This was my first project visit, and Jothi and I had planned to visit as many project locations as possible. As soon as I reached the CRUSADE office, I was met by the team, leading to a brilliant presentation by Jothi. CRUSADE works in 200 villages in the four blocks (Minjur, Sholavaram, Ellapuram, and Gummidipoondi blocks of Tiruvallur district) covering a population of about 2,50,000.

We have been providing small support for people with disabilities in three blocks Minjur, Sholavaram and Ellapuram. In these blocks where CRUSADE has been operating, 2200 women, men and children with a disability were supported from 2018 to March 2024.

Through my couple of days stay, I visited many villages of Minjur and Ellapuram blocks and got the opportunity to have community meetings, meetings with people with disabilities, meetings with women members of the self-help groups, elderly women groups, and adolescent girls who are being imparted skill training.

The simple solutions to the complex challenges that people with disabilities face were the biggest learning from CRUSADE’s interventions. It is the incredible work of CRUSADE through which they are able to connect with and support the people with disabilities who are living in very unhealthy conditions with minimum resources and social security. CRUSADE has been able to provide psychological, social and financial support to them for the last few years, making their lives a little better.

Although the project has seen delays because of the lack of financial support and resources, it is running well and we have come to the next phase of the project, where we are focusing on the ‘Rehabilitation and Livelihood’ of the people with disabilities, and have also integrated some of the recommendations from the project evaluation report.

This year, there is a change in the project field as another trust has offered CRUSADE to support the Disability work in one of the three areas where Action Village India has been supporting. Jothi discussed this proposition with us, and we were happy to know that CRUSADE will be getting support for an additional block from SOTE (Salt of the Earth). Action Village India will be supporting the project in two blocks rather than three this year, but with enhanced project objectives and deliverables.

My meetings and interactions with people living with a disability made it very clear that due to CRUSADE’s interventions, there is a change in the society on how they perceive people living with a disability. Many of them shared that earlier they were not treated with respect in their communities and there was always this sense of discrimination and derogatory remarks against them due to the disability, which led to less confidence and an inferiority complex. However, due to the incredible work of CRUSADE and never ending dedication of the team, people’s perceptions are changing; the change is slow but it is there. The self-help group meetings and awareness camps have proven to be great strategies in diminishing the derogatory and discriminatory behaviours against people living with a disability.

Some shared their personal stories of change, and sitting with them, listening to their narration was so inspiring and encouraging. It made my commitment towards supporting them much more stronger and gave me a push to work harder and ensure a regular flow of financial support towards CRUSADE. This is the smallest thing that we at Action Village India can do in bringing them to the mainstream as compared to the hard work that the CRUSADE team has been doing in handling the complex challenges the people with disabilities face. CRUSADE has been successful in making the paradigm move with their constant support and commitment. Very inspiring.

Some of the important highlights:

  • They are doing commendable work with the utmost honesty.
  • I could sense the pure intentions of supporting the people with disability.
  • They have been able to reach out to people who have otherwise felt left out from the mainstream.
  • Their referral services to support the people with disabilities with health issues and prosthetics, etc, is of great support to them.
  • There were no issues in the intent and the execution however, I felt some positive knowledge support is required in terms of creating a greater impact and taking the people with disabilities towards sustainability.
  • There was a visible difference between SHGs with no PwDs and the SHGs with PwDs. SHGs of people with disabilities needs strengthening, encouragement, and support to empower them, socially and economically and for greater mental health.
  • They have been providing the skills training to women and girls but there seems to be less planning on the way forward. These women need guidance to develop a futuristic plan on how they will receive any credit or market linkages to earn livelihood after the skill training. Mapping the opportunities before and after skill training is vital to be able to link them with income earning activities for economic empowerment.
  • Some people with disabilities are becoming more and more dependent on CRUSADE’s support rather than becoming self-dependent and gaining confidence to survive if the support is withdrawn.

The entire team of CRUSADE is working on the above and trying to make a strategies for a sustainable future.

My heart is still with the elderly women I met. They are all about warmth and love. I received many hugs and kisses on my forehead from them which reminded me of the care and affection I get from my grandparents, and I will always cherish these moments. The field leader read the write-up they have prepared which included all the work they have done in the previous year and their plans for the current year.

These women were so talkative, and each one of them had a story to share. Interacting with them was so heartwarming. One of them shared her wish to go on a spiritual trip with other women close by. Some shared about their health and wellbeing and how they are benefiting from the health camps. Some were keen on starting their ‘Yoga Journey’ to stay healthy.

Breathtakingly warm!

I am already looking forward to meeting them again in my next trip to India.

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